School has started or is going to start for millions of American children over the next few weeks. Besides having the Back to School Blues (which my kids have been moaning about since August 1st), they face getting back into a routine that includes lessons, studying, tests, and homework; however, many educators (including yours truly) have been questioning the efficacy of homework in the education equation for years.
Recently a second grade teacher named Brandy Young from Texas has made a virtual name for herself by deciding not to give her students homework for an entire year. Her letter to parents explaining this decision has gone viral on Facebook and has been discussed in other venues. While this may seem like radical thinking, there has been a growing call among educators to reevaluate homework and its place in our evolving technological world that is changing the scholastic atmosphere considerably. Ms. Young wrote in part:
After much research this summer, I am trying something new. Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year. Research had been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eating dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.
While I get her point, I think Ms. Young is thinking of a more holistic approach to bringing families together and keeping them from dealing with the dreaded homework monster that seemingly mocks the meat it feeds upon. As a parent who has spent countless hours helping my kids with homework, I commiserate with her and all parents who feel like they were in the same sinking boat; however, as an educator, I have long suspected that traditional homework was not just an unnecessary burden but also ineffective in reinforcing concepts or enhancing students’ success.
Many parents, especially those who are paying for private schools, tend to equate a heavy homework load with getting more bang for their buck, but the truth is that copious amounts of homework (besides being extremely tedious and time consuming) are mostly detrimental for students at all levels, and what has long been called reinforcement of skills taught really just ends up being extremely low quality in its value to the student.
Having long been interested in the concepts of "blended learning" and "the flipped classroom," I have become a proponent of taking both ideas and turning American schools around. One of the most crucial incentives for this is the need for individual instruction, paced in a way to meet every student’s needs. As a former classroom teacher I can attest to the fact that kind of instruction is almost impossible in the traditional frontal classroom with 25 or more students all listening and seeing things from their own perspective.
Blended learning involves some kind of online component within the traditional classroom setting. In this scenario students would watch lessons created by their subject or classroom teachers online. The key thing here is Student A may be able to grasp everything with one viewing; however, Students B, C, and D may need two or even more viewings.
I have sometimes heard students complain that “the teacher goes too fast,” and this would be an ideal way to slow down the pace to meet individual needs. Afterwards students could participate in an in-class activity or session with the teacher at the pace each one needed while others are working independently. The teacher can also buttress the online component with a whole class presentation or activity once everyone is where he or she needs to be.
The flipped classroom – of which I have long been an advocate – involves an even more radical approach. Remember when old Mr. Gradgrind (a rather horrid educator from Dickens's novel Hard Times) used to sit at his desk drilling students and making them read from a chapter? What a complete and total waste of time you say, right? Well, I would hear from teachers in the real world that this was the only way they could know that students knew their work or read the textbook.
The flipped classroom changes everything. That chapter would be read at home online or from a book. The lecture about that chapter would also be viewed at home and, similar to the blended learning scenario, a student could take as much time as needed to rewind, pause, and truly grasp the concepts at an individual pace. Students could then complete an assignment or quiz that would allow the teacher to ascertain whether or not the lesson was grasped. These assignments and quizzes could also be individually prepared to meet each student’s needs.
So what actually happens in school in the flipped classroom? In the flipped classroom, the in-class activities are like the homework – but in a much more dynamic and fluid manifestation. Moving away from what has been jokingly called “the sage on the stage” model, the days of teacher lecture in the classroom would be over. Instead, the teacher facilitator, or what some have dubbed “the guide on the side,” would allow for a more student-centered environment that would fully engage the students in a situation where they too are responsible for the success of lessons. This kind of student empowerment will help prepare them not only well for school but for when they become adults.
The future of our schools will no doubt see a combining of the ideas from blended learning and the flipped classroom to revolutionize education by truly individualizing it. This would change the landscape of “regular” education to be more like special education for all students. In this way each student should have an individualized education plan (something long overdue) and would better meet the needs of all students.
This kind of change is already happening as an experiment in some schools, and many teachers and students are embracing it. For the teacher there is no longer the pressure of getting everything into the lecture during 45 minute periods, and for the student the obvious benefit is to be able to hit stop and rewind. More importantly, allowing students to come into school and actively take charge of their lessons, make meaningful choices, and have significant input, raises the bar in ways never experienced before.
Also taking away the “time” factor will no longer inhibit that creativity that tends to get left at the wayside because only concrete and definitive answers are acceptable. Instead we are moving toward a place where Socrates might feel right at home – the classroom where asking thought provoking questions is encouraged and becomes just as important as having the right answers, where critical thinking skills are honed and become the rule and not the exception.
So this Texas teacher is onto something because the days of homework should indeed be numbered. The idea of homework and in school work will eventually take on a whole new meaning, one that is necessary and compelling if we are going to guide students to meet exceedingly difficult standards and curriculum as they move up each grade and through to high school and college; also, in this way they will be better prepared for the challenges they will face in the workforce in their future lives.